Know comment: Re-liberating Jerusalem

It’s been almost 50 years since Israel reunified Jerusalem and turned it from a dusty backwater town into a truly radiant international capital city sparkling with energy and creativity.

May 14, 2015 22:25
March of the Living

Thousands of young people participating in March of the Living walk from Safra Square to the Western Wall on April 23, 2015. (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)


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It’s been almost 50 years since Israel reunified Jerusalem and turned it from a dusty and depressed backwater town into a truly radiant international capital city sparkling with energy and creativity.

There is more to come. The dynamic vision for Jerusalem at 2020 in the transportation, cultural, recreational and business fields unveiled this week by Mayor Nir Barkat is exciting and uplifting.

Yet as we approach Jerusalem Liberation Day this Sunday, there are hefty question marks hanging over the city’s future. These uncertainties flow from government hesitations in the face of international and Arab pressure for re-division of the city (Heaven forbid).

Instead of acting decisively to buttress Israel’s sovereignty, security, economy and social vibrancy in Jerusalem, we have stalemate in government decision-making.

In fact, the threats to Jerusalem as a living, breathing, growing, safe and open city – and to Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and the epicenter of the global Jewish community – come mainly from neglect on Israel’s part.

The fourth Netanyahu government, taking office this weekend, must rebuff deleterious foreign pressures, stop dithering and act to reestablish forward motion – Zionist momentum – in Jerusalem. Here’s how: • Housing: Except for very rich (and mostly foreign) buyers who can afford luxury apartments and fancy villas in central Jerusalem, there is no significant new building under way in the city or its immediate environs for young families with kids.

For fear of international censure, the government has shrunk from critically needed expansions of peripheral, middle class neighborhoods like Ramot, Ramat Shlomo, Pisgat Ze’ev, Gilo and Givat Hamatos (all of which are over the obsolete Green Line). No new neighborhoods have been established in the city since Netanyahu’s first term in the late nineties (Har Homa). For the same reason, successive governments going back to Yitzhak Rabin have failed to follow-through on plans to build housing in the large E-1 quadrant on the eastern slopes of the city (along the road towards Ma’aleh Adumim).

Netanyahu threatened to build in E-1 if the Palestinian Authority sued Israel for war crimes in the International Criminal Court, then failed to follow-through on his threat even when the PA launched an ICC assault.

But this only highlights the fact that the expansion of Jerusalem eastward, so critical to the viability and livability of the city for the long term, is being held hostage to global politics.

Jerusalem also has been boxed into an affordable housing stalemate by environmental lobby groups that want to protect the green mountains to the west of the city, and who have stymied all plans for significant housing projects in this area (adjacent to Tzur Hadassah, Mevaseret Zion and more).

Netanyahu’s new government must move to break these “settlement” logjams.

• Security: Just yesterday, the security services broke-up a big terrorist cell operating out of Silwan. But cars and buses traveling to or parking near the Western Wall are regularly stoned, and almost every Jerusalem light rail car has been hit by stones in the north of the city.

Travel to the hallowed, ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives is extraordinarily risky; Jewish mourners are sure to be assaulted.

As a result, almost nobody ventures there. The few, brave bereaved families who do so, travel in organized convoys with bullet and stoneproof windows. There is also frequent Arab vandalism of the graves.

This is, of course, a shameful abdication of Israeli sovereignty and Jewish national dignity.

Were such violence against Jews or vandalism against a Jewish cemetery to regularly occur abroad, it would be an international scandal.

Even though he was from a nationalist political party, the previous police minister took a light policing approach to the lawlessness in Jerusalem. He and his police brass wanted to avoid incidents that could become major conflagrations and international trouble for Israel. While understandable, this low-profile strategy is no longer sufficient.

Netanyahu’s new government must devote much more attention to the re-securing (dare I say re-liberation) of Jerusalem – by boosting the manpower, resources and authority of the Jerusalem police force; and by renewed enforcement of civic law in the Arab neighborhoods of the city, including building and tax codes, noise pollution bylaws and traffic rules.

Some will say that another part of the answer is the devotion of more municipal services and budgets to the eastern parts of the city. That’s true, but let’s face it: The developmental gap is not why the violence is growing.

Mayor Barkat is indeed advancing Arab neighborhoods of the city, through more budgets for education and infrastructure.

• Temple Mount: Netanyahu’s new government must also redress the gross violations of Israeli sovereignty and Jewish rights implicit in the prevailing situation on Har Habayit, the Temple Mount.

Jewish visitors to the mount – the very few that are occasionally let in – are systematically accosted by paid professional Islamic provocateurs, while the police stand aside. It goes without saying that the almost-five-decadelong ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount outrageously remains in place; lest the Arabs get really too angry.

And of course, illegal Wakf excavations continue on the Temple Mount without Israeli archeological supervision. We know that over the past decade the burrowing-out by the Wakf of the underground Solomon’s Stables has wantonly destroyed thousands of years of Jewish relics and history.

Jewish prayer should be facilitated in some symbolic way on the vast Temple Mount plaza. This can be effected either through a time-sharing arrangement similar to that in place at the Cave of Machpela in Hebron, or through a small synagogue tucked away on the fringes of the plaza that won’t overshadow the two large Muslim structures on the Mount. Wakf violence should be dealt with compellingly.

The bottom line is that, to hold on to a united Jerusalem, Israel needs to act. It must extensively build homes to keep the city alive and young. It must wield a big baton against Arab insurgents and radicals. It must restore its full and active jurisdiction and reassert Jewish national rights, in all parts of the city.

These initiatives will engender Palestinian (and American) resistance, but with both resoluteness and sensitivity Israel can succeed and overcome the opposition. Jerusalem is still a consensus issue in Israeli society and politics.

The new Netanyahu government would enjoy widespread public backing for action to shoreup Israel’s stake in the holy city.

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